Review: Life on Mars (US) 1×1

They have their hands on our crown jewels

Life on Mars (US)

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: I’m guessing the Beeb will buy it. What do you think?

This is the one we in Britain have all been waiting for. Despite running for only two series, time travel cop drama Life on Mars became something akin to the crown jewels – a national treasure to be revered by everyone. Even the awfulness of spin-off Ashes to Ashes couldn’t dull our love for it.

So when we heard that the US was going to adapt it, we all feared the worst and assumed terrible things were going to happen to our precious*. “Take your hands off our crown jewels, Yanks,” was the general reaction.

To be fair, once we saw the trailer and the pilot, we actually had a good reason to be dismayed. The trailer was truly awful and the pilot was bland. Relocated from Manchester to LA, the show ditched most of the characters, took away a lot of the fun bits without adding anything, and didn’t really have any style of its own.

And ABC agreed. It took one look and said, “Guys, do you want to try again? Because this is sh*t.” So the producers did try again. They changed production team, relocated the show to New York, brought back all the old characters and rewrote the script. Then they brought in heavyweight acting talent Harvey Keitel, Gretchen Mol and Michael Imperioli – and reshot the entire thing.

Wow. They say pilots can be unrepresentative of the series that follow, but that’s all pretty unprecedented – although unsurprising given just how few new dramas ABC is running with this Fall.

Has that been enough though?

Where were you in 1973? NYPD Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) finds himself in the cultural hotbed of New York City in the tumultuous times of the Vietnam War, Watergate, women’s lib and the civil and gay rights movements – without a cell phone, computer, PDA or MP3 player — suddenly hurtled back in time when he’s ripped from 2008 after being hit by a car while chasing down a criminal. He’s trying mightily to understand what has just happened to him and how he can get back “home.”

What exactly is going on here? It’s like Sam is on a different planet. It’s the Wild West out there: uncontrollable criminals, police on the take… whom can he trust? Forced to use a different moral code and without hi-tech crime fighting techniques, Sam clashes with his new boss at the 125th Precinct, the irascible Lieutenant Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), who would rather use his fists than his brains to solve a crime. Hunt, who has earned the adoration of the men under him, does his best to hide his humanity behind a gruff exterior and great gut instincts, in contrast to Sam’s more politically correct cutting edge style. But the two begrudgingly combine to make a powerful team — whether they like it or not.

Then there are the other squad members of the 1-2-5. Detective Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli), a big, mean guy in a street-fight with life. Ray may be a rough, tough sexist, but when the chips are down, he’s a handy guy to have in your corner. Until Sam came along, Ray was the golden boy of the force and Gene’s go-to guy. It’s the man’s man against Sam’s charming wit, charisma and eerie futuristic knowledge of not just police procedure — but the whole culture — that puts them toe-to-toe in this face-off for Gene’s approval.

Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol) is a member of the Police Women’s Bureau. At a time when females were only allowed to do menial tasks and not real police work, she’s the smartest person in the room. Little does she know that her dream of becoming a real cop will come true. Right now she’s struggling to deal with being undermined, under-used and in general against the sexism of the times. However she’s the one person Sam can turn to to help guide him in his new reality. Theirs is a strong bond. After all, they’re both outcasts.

Rookie Detective Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy) is a sweet guy trying to make it in this uncompromising world, but right now he’s out of his league with Gene and Ray. He’s impressed with Sam’s new way of looking at and thinking about policing, but that means he’s at odds with Gene and his old school style.

In his 2008 life, Sam was in love with Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet) and, although Maya and Annie will never meet, Annie’s workplace battles have paved the way for Maya to become a full-fledged cop. But a fascinating, unique love triangle evolves between Sam’s “real” in-the-moment friendship with Annie, his longing to get back to Maya and the fantasy of what could be.

At home in Sam’s apartment building in the East Village, there’s Windy, a free-spirited, post-hippie chick who can teach Sam a thing or two about the cultural revolution taking place in front of his unbelieving eyes.

Just how will Sam deal with all this ambiguity while trying to remain a top detective, as he desperately attempts to get back to 2008? He might just find things aren’t so dissimilar in New York circa 1973 and 2008.

“Life on Mars” stars Jason O’Mara (“In Justice,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Men in Trees”) as Sam Tyler, Harvey Keitel (“Bugsy,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Piano,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Mean Streets”) as Lieutenant Gene Hunt, Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos,” “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Mitch Albom’s For One More Day”) as Detective Ray Carling, Gretchen Mol (“3:10 to Yuma,” “The Notorious Bettie Page”) as Annie Norris and Jonathan Murphy (“October Road”) as Detective Chris Skelton. Lisa Bonet (“High Fidelity,” “Enemy of the State,” “The Bill Cosby Show”) will appear as a recurring guest star as Maya Daniels.

Josh Appelbaum (“Alias,” “October Road”), André Nemec (“Alias,” “October Road”) and Scott Rosenberg (“October Road”) are executive producers. “Life on Mars” is produced by 20th Century Fox Television and ABC Studios.

Is it any good?
Certainly compared to the pilot it is. Oddly, it’s like a music mix. They had an hour’s worth of material from the original BBC starter episode to work with, which they condensed down to 40 minutes for the pilot and the first episode of the US series. But they’ve chosen different emphases and different material in the two cases.

So everything still looks very much like the BBC original, it’s just that some things that were in the pilot have been left out and other things put back in.

Many of the changes have been for the better. The move to New York is undoubtedly a good idea and the producers have actually done some research about the time and established a sense of place, including a breathtaking shot of the Twin Towers, something sorely lacking from the pilot. The 2008 police work no longer looks like science fiction in its own right, but something far, far closer to normal world policing. It’s in these areas that much of the original material has been restored and of course updated for the new setting.

The restoration of Ray and Chris, as well as the rampant sexism and the changes in police procedure since 1973, are undoubtedly good moves, too. In particular, Michael Imperioli’s Ray is a more plausible character than his British equivalent and better acted, too – as is Chris. Sam’s no longer the macho hero of the pilot – he’s more like his PC, slightly nancy British self – so spars well will both Ray and Gene. And Gene’s “man of the people” policing is back in there to contrast with Sam’s by-the-book style, even if his choice of cookies differs.

Lastly, Gretchen Mol’s Annie is by far the best version of the character so far. Not only does she benefit from having a decent actress playing her, her character’s been bolstered with better writing: she’s not just someone for Sam to confide him, she’s a proper character now. And she’s blonde, which is always A Good Thing.

New material
But the show’s writers have changed things from the original as well and added new material, too. The end scene has changed to a new take on an old philosophical conundrum, which actually works quite well. Nelson the bar keeper’s been replaced by a white guy; Colin’s got a brother; Maya, Sam’s 2008 girlfriend, is being played by The Cosby Show‘s Lisa Bonet so you can bet she’s going to pop up in flashforwards and dream sequences at some point; there’s going to be a neighbour for Sam; and some key sequences have been extended to up the action quotient – something that the episode’s director does much better than his/her British predecessor did, even if everything else is almost shot-by-shot identical. We might even have a different reason for why Sam’s in the past.

There are a few problems, though. Harvey Keitel’s a bit frail looking these days so doesn’t seem quite the match for Sam that he should be. He’s also been saddled with some quite bad new dialogue, and his delivery is a bit lacking in naturalism – he’s nowhere near Philip Glenister’s level of skill yet, but given this is his first television role, I’m willing to give him some time to get up to speed. And Jason O’Mara, while he’s improved since the pilot, is still no John Simm.

There’s also the music. The soundtrack is fantastic, with the likes of The Who and The Rolling Stones now getting a look in**. But the composed music is clearly trying to be of the early 70s cop show genre, and sounds correspondingly shite.

So actually, this is quite good. I’m definitely willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for now and once it grows beyond the original British scripts, we’ll be able to see if it’s its own beast or not. It has the potential, now they’re actually confronting the police corruption, brutality and sexism of the era straight on, to be as worthwhile a look at the times as the British series was.

Here’s a YouTube promo and the ABC Life on Mars starter kit

* We didn’t really give a monkey’s when we heard Spanish TV was going to get its mitts on it, though, did we? That’s fair isn’t it? Because Spanish TV always produces the highest quality dramas…
** Do all New York-based dramas now need to include The Who’s Baba O’Riley in the soundtrack? cf CSI: NY


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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